Thursday, 9 January 2014
St Petersburg 1914
So now I can stick on my CV that I've written a monologue for a famous actor. I've had scripts for two Glyndebourne 'Opera Bites' - a sadly defunct CD series of introductions - read by Fiona Shaw (Bizet's The Pearl Fishers) and Timothy West (Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery), but this one 'for' Jonathan Pryce is slightly different. It seemed like a crazy thing to have to do when Radio 3 approached me to provide a 'musical postcard' from St Petersburg for its series Music on the Brink, about Europe in early 1914. 'Present it like an "I was at a great concert last night" type of thing', I was told, and groaned far too audibly.
Then it came to me. First, why not just snippet from Prokofiev's extensive diary for that year? Not quite the format they wanted. So how about this: write the postcard as from one of SSP's fellow St Petersburg Conservatory student friends, waiting for his climactic participation in the student competition to claim a Schroeder grand piano as prize (he won it playing - in an unprecedented move - his own First Piano Concerto as well as Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture)? That did it: thus I could cover not only SSP's new steps in music but also the ongoing Wagner craze and his first live hearing of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in a Koussevitzky concert. Picture of SSP below is a bit later, from the American period.
You can hear the results this afternoon at some point during In Tune starting at 4.30pm, and thereafter for the next week on the BBC iPlayer, perhaps maybe for all time on this clip added tonight which I've just (23.00) heard (as a matter of personal pique, although I'm assuming Suzy Klein gave a credit in the back announcement, there's none as it stands in the presentation or the broadcast here, which is a bit poor; but what's a script hack compared to a 'star of stage and screen'? UPDATE: my gripe has been answered, the credit added. So I'd wipe the rest of the parenthesis were it not for the sake of the comments making sense).
My mention of a chess game Prokofiev held during the competition with a female rival got cut, but in any case I stopped short of chronicling a simultaneous, momentous event in his life, his participation in the 1914 St Petersburg International Chess Championships held that April.
I have a fair bit about it in the biography, and there's more in the ever compelling diaries, but until today I didn't know this extraordinary photo existed. That I now do is courtesy of Edward Winter's Chess History website
Spot the composer? I thought I saw him at the back. This partial key from some diligent chess fan made me look again. You'll need to click on the pic to enlarge for the numbers.
1-Alekhine, 2- Janowski, 3-Capablanca, 4-Bernstein, 5-Marshall, 6-Blackburne, 7-Lasker, 8-Tarrasch, 9-Rubinstein, 10-Nimzowitsch, 11-Gunsberg, 12-D.D. Korelev, 13-A.I. Alekhine, 14-J. Taubenhaus, 17-N.A. Znosko-Borovsky, 21-E.I. Talvik, 22-Boris Bashkirov-Verin 23-P.A. Saburov, 24-S.S. Prokofiev, 25-J.O. Sossnitzky, 26-A.A. Chepurnev, 27-R. Gebhardt, 29-B.E. Maliutin, 31-P.P. Saburev, 33-A. Burn, 35-Vainshtein, 36-P.A. Eftifeev, 37-Lochwitsky, 39-Ed. M. Nabel, 40-P.P. Potemkin, 56-B.Z. Kolenko, 58-Frau Lasker
So that includes not only SSP (24) but also the great contestants whose game was taking place around the time of the picture, Prokofiev's soon-to-be firm friend José Capablanca (3) and Emmanuel Lasker (7), whom the composer compared respectively to Mozart and Bach (see pages 99-100 of my Vol. 1), as well as his feckless chum Boris Bashkirov who wrote poetry under the name of Boris Verin (22). Also in the biog's appendix is the simultaneous chess game victory Prokofiev gained over Capablanca on 16 May.
As for the wider events leading up to the terrible, unanticipated* explosion of August 1914, I've been reading more about them with horror and a heavy heart in between the wit and wisdom of Simon Winder's sequel to his captivating Germania, Danubia.
Oh, the pointlessness not just of the Great War but all those lives lost in the carnage of the Habsburgs' earlier conflicts. What especially makes the heart sink is the shifting Realpolitik which dogs every conflict even today, the principle of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' which afflicted the patchwork of nations and languages making up the ever-shifting Austrian (and Austro-Hungarian) Empire.
Even so, despite all those mid-19th century feckless battles, Winder constantly reiterates, as he did in Germania, how 1900s Vienna didn't especially see itself as the dancer on the abyss it becomes with hindsight. He's fascinated by the social life which leaves none of the traces we use as signifiers - film, music, art, literature.
Winder's most extravagant flights of fancy come in accounts of visits to often melancholy sites around the former empire. Marienbad/Mariánské Lázně gets the 'attractively brittle...pointless fraud' treatment, harmless on the surface and horrible underneath, Winder concluding that section brilliantly: 'This framework for polite, empty circulation, a regulated, closed environment for the right kind of people, now seems to stand for a lost and enviable pre-1914 world, but in practice it has always been toxic and peculiar'.
His paean to the architecture of Budapest Zoo culminates in a delirious ('demented' would be Winder's word, sometimes a bit overused in his second volume) description of the Guinea-Pig Village. Below, the 'faux-Tamerlane' Elephant House, 'possibly the maddest of all Hungarian "Turanian" fantasies about national origins in some vague but grand part of Central Asia, with the unique displacement activity of also granting the nation's elephants a shared Hungarian ancestry'. Winder goes on to tell us how during the brief, unlikely re-alignment with the Ottomans in the First World War the suggestion of a mosque for pachyderms caused offence, so the minaret had to be removed for a bit.
Buy, read, marvel at the lightness with which Winder wears his polymathy. His curiosity is boundless and he's left me with an enormous list of places to see - aforementioned zoo, the perfect Bohemian town of Český Krumlov on the Vltava and Sibiu in Romania right at the top; of literature to read - time to pick up my three-volume Banffy, but also to seek out other Czech and Hungarian novels; of films to see and music to hear (Winder is one up on me in knowing, and making attractive the prospect of listening to, the four Zemlinsky string quartets - shame I couldn't get to any of the concerts in the Hampstead Festival cycle). But to make the full 'follow up' inventory I need to go back to the book and comb through. It's certainly one for the ages.
*A tart commenter takes me to task for the irresponsible use of that word - I reply (see below) that I should have qualified it with the acnowledgment that it was the extent of the explosion, its ramifications, which could not have been anticipated.